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In Warsaw, Poland, on January 31, 2007, the world lost one of its great journalists and literary superstars. Once recognized as Poland's journalist of the century, Ryszard Kapuscinski (74) suffered a fatal heart attack during an operation at Warsaw's Banacha hospital. He was buried at Warsaw's Powazki Cemetery. Poland's Government paid homage to this man with a moment of silence, and Speaker Marek Jurek praised him for his accomplishments.
In the wake of his passing, Salman Rushdie wrote, "One Kapuscinski is worth more than a thousand whispering and fantasizing scribblers. His exceptional combination of journalism and art allows us to feel so close to what Kapuscinski calls the inexpressible true image of war."
Born March 4, 1932 in Pinsk, Belarus, a city formerly located in the Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands) of the Second Polish Republic, Kapuscinski said that growing up in this polyglot of ethnicities and desperate poverty helped him assimilate easily while working abroad.
For most of his adult life Ryszard Kapuscinski preferred to live in uncomfortable and obscure places, many in Africa, writing about conflict and discontent, dispatching his stories via telex, which was his sole connection to Warsaw at the time. By his mid-40s, he suddenly and quite successfully found himself enlightening the entire world with his books. These works were translated into over 25 different languages because of his authentic literary reportage style.
Kapuscinski continued earning international acclaim for his books on wars, revolts and rebellions in Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of the world. For more than 40 years, he returned to Africa writing about more than 30 revolutions and government coups.
He once told the New York Times in 1987, "Empathy is perhaps the most important quality for a foreign correspondent. If you have it, other deficiencies are forgivable. If you don't, nothing much can help."
After graduating with a history degree from the University of Warsaw in 1955, Kapuscinski found a job at a communist journal where he wrote a critical article that embarrassingly exposed mismanagement and drunkenness in a Cracow steel factory - considered the beacon of Soviet progress. It set off an anti-Soviet bombshell that sent him into hiding. He was 23 at the time. Eventually vindicated by a federal review and given permission to be sent abroad to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, earning him the credit of being the first Polish journalist ever in those countries.
Kapuscinski served as the exclusive African correspondent for the Polish Press Agency (PAP), reporting first hand accounts of the African continental upheaval that shook off colonial domination and declared independence. During this time, Kapuscinski realized that journalism didn't do justice to a complex political situation. "Without trying to enter other ways of looking, perceiving, describing, we won't understand anything of the world."
Consequently, Kapuscinski kept two sets of notes. One notebook for the work he was doing for PAP, the other filled with personal observations - observations he felt were not worthy of being included in his articles, but were of interest to himself. That interest, plus the personal notebooks, would actually become the basis for all his future writings.
By 1978 he wrote one of his most popular books, The Emperor. This historical account of the decline of Haile Selassie's regime in Ethiopia was interpreted by many Polish readers as a direct reproach of Poland's communist regime at the time. Kapuscinski himself later said that the book was about the "mechanism of dictatorial rule."
He didn't stop there. He continued to pen his global and political observations in books such as Shah Of Shahs, about the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He wrote Another Day Of Life, about the Angolan civil war; Imperium, about the dying days of the Soviet Union; The Soccer War; and The Shadow of the Sun.
Another Day Of Life, written prior to The Emperor, was his account of the Portuguese colonial collapse in Angola. He was the only foreign journalist there. He was the only Eastern European in the midst of the chaos and fear in Luanda at the time. Kapuscinski describes how the Portuguese settlers scrambled to get their families out of the country while apartheid soldiers from South Africa, Zaire, and Cuba moved in on the capital in conjunction with Angolan armies. At the same time the CIA and the Portuguese PIDE created and spread rumours of triumph for all sides.
Another Day of Life truly shows his dedication to journalism and his desire to educate the world. The news in his day, had nothing to do with bottom lines and a unified media, it was about political struggle, and the search for truth.
International political journalist and writer, J.R. Kambak commented, "Doctors have the Hippocratic Oath, scientists have Einstein, and journalists have Kapscinski as their guiding light when challenging the political ruling elite that compromises life's virtue, the cultural propensity and social phenomenon that suffers under such ill-gotten jurisdictions, and most importantly to develop the art of writing as a highly specialized correspondent of life. Kapscinski, the mortal man has passed away, but Kapscinski, the writer extraordinaire, lives tenfold to show us what we are not, and need to become."
During his lifetime he received literary prizes in Canada, Germany, Italy, France, and the United States. The Lapidarium series of books can be said to be his best philosophical reflections on the world. A continual contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, his works live on to be absorbed and, especially in today's political climate, understood as warnings with detailed observations that attest the truth of the adage "Absolute power, corrupts absolutely."
His wife, Alicja, and a daughter who lives in Canada survive him. Our collective condolences go out to the family.
The Bush, Polish Style (Bush po polsku. Historie przygodne) Czytelnik, 1962
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